Science agency deal brings new hope on jobs

RESEARCH that keeps British food safe must not be jeopardised by a move to part-privatise the work of Government scientists in Yorkshire, union leaders have warned.

The Food and Envionment Research Agency in Yorkshire
The Food and Envionment Research Agency in Yorkshire

Ministers have announced outsourcing firm Capita has paid £20m for a 75 per cent stake in the Food Environment Research Agency (Fera) which employs around 400 scientists at its Sand Hutton site.

As part of the deal, Capita and Newcastle University will together invest a further £14.5m that will lead to 50 additional scientists and 40 researchers being employed on the site.

The Government argues involving a private sector business will bring vital new investment into Fera and help it capitalise on its expertise overseas.

Environment Secretary Liz Truss said: “This exciting investment allows Fera to grow its science capability, ensuring the security and quality of our food supply chain and keeping our plants and environment healthy.

“Fera’s continued ability to deliver cutting edge science will enhance its reputation and viability as an international centre of excellence that can compete abroad and attract further investment.”

But the Prospect union, which represents scientists at Sand Hutton, expressed concern that commercial considerations could impact on scientific research that monitors disease and chemical risks in the food chain.

Prospect national secretary Geraldine O’Connell said: “Sadly, our experience of the privatisation of other public sector scientific organisations has not been encouraging.

“We will want to ensure that the new provider focuses on delivering good quality, long-term science and is not simply concerned with making money.”

The announcement came as the Government confirmed it was investigating a previous contract with Capita to carry out civil service training.

The Public Accounts Committee also raised concerns last year about the way a relatively small group of companies, including Capita, dominate Government contracts to provide public services.

But Capita insisted its involvement would benefit Fera.

Capita chief executive Andy Parker said: “The excellent science being carried out by staff at Fera has not yet been able to reach its full commercial potential because of obvious limits on investment, recruitment and marketing.

“Capita’s commercial know-how will complement the Fera team’s scientific expertise, helping it to grow the scientific capability it can offer existing and new customers.”

The York, North Yorkshire and East Riding Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) has already invested £2.7m in the Sand Hutton site as part of a plan to turn it into a major centre for food and agriculture businesses.

LEP chairman Barry Dodd said: “We invested in the Sand Hutton campus because of its huge untapped potential. An institution at the heart of government strategy for the bioeconomy, with links to plant and animal science in over 100 countries is a tremendous economic asset.

“We look forward to working with the entrepreneurial talent these new partners bring to bear to make Yorkshires best kept secret less so.”